Nancy's Reviews > Brave New World / Brave New World Revisited

Brave New World / Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley
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's review
Nov 05, 2010

really liked it
Read from November 05 to 18, 2010

** spoiler alert ** For a child of the 80s and 90s, reading books like Brave New World requires constant slaps to the face to remind myself that Huxley was not, in spite of appearances, imitating that one episode of Dr. Who, or that one Kurt Vonnegut book. I brace myself to squint through the layers of cliche that might have formed over its message as a result of the book's influence on popular culture, especially the culture of the 1960s that celebrated liberties of all kinds. And yes, many elements from Brave New World found their way into my head through other media. The lyrics to The Smashing Pumpkins' s song "Soma" now make a little more sense, as much sense as can be expected from any of The Smashing Pumpkins's lyrics.

It is nearly impossible to read BNW without comparing it to 1984. Huxley himself does in his "revisitation" of the text in the included essays. Huxley wrote before WWII, in 1932, and Orwell, famously, in 1948. Both authors took aim at communist regimes, especially Stalin's (1922-1953), which encompassed both books. Orwell pointed retrospectively at Stalin through allegory, while Huxley was forced to predict the impact of communist culture, an act that pulled his work into the realm of science fiction. And according to the essays, Huxley thought he was making an accurate, researched prediction of humanity's future. Problems such as overpopulation would lead to desperate new systems of social order. He was partly right, and partly wrong. Huxley's world probably bears greater resemblance to Nazi totalitarianism, and, some might argue, to contemporary "consumerism," though I find that conclusion a bit of a stretch.

Huxley's world is cleverly socially engineered using a system of applied eugenics, subconscious conditioning, consumerism, and drugs. The lengthy opening chapter is a tour a laboratory where babies are cloned in bottles, many of them exact genetic copies, created to fill quotas in a spectrum of intelligence classes. The Alpha class inherits superior intelligence, while the Gamma class, as a result of planned fetal alcohol poisoning, is a synthesized neanderthal. Engineered conditioning in early childhood, combined with a heavy batch of sleep hypnosis, teaches members of each class to be happy with their lot, and this is where the difficult questions begin. In an ideal communistic world, someone still has to clean the toilets and press the elevator buttons. Huxley argues that the only way to make this seem an ideal situation is to make people who enjoy cleaning toilets. Happiness here means contentment, placation, an obliviousness to any need for change or progress. Emotion and critical thought, when they arise at all, are quelled through a combination of social taboos and the drug Soma, which induces a blissfull, fantastic state free of any negative side effects. People are kept so content, socialized, and entertained that it never occurs to them to attack the system. In his essay, Huxley describes the world as "an attempt to re-create the human race in the likeness of termites."

As Huxley points out in his essays, his flavor of mind control is the inverse of Orwell's; it controls entirely through positive reinforcement. In 1984, Big Brother and his "Ministries" subjugate the population using fear, torture, and wartime desperation. Orwell's world resembles a giant Dickensian orphanage, and Huxley's, Pinnochio's Pleasure Island.

Huxley's injustice is more nuanced, buried in a problem of human nature as much as in an over-controlled government. There's something far more disturbing about a world in which people obey not because they're under a knife, but because they are content with the standard-issue lifestyle. Huxley's recipe for complacency:

* a degree of job contentment,
* a culture that encourages sexual promiscuity (beginning at age 5)
* the elimination of parental relationships
* a ready supply of euphoric, tranquilizing drugs
* multi-sensory porn as the highest art form available
* a sense of group belonging
* a balanced amount of food and exercise
* an arbitrary religion of consumerism that worships "Ford"

Without parental issues, romantic tension, job dissatisfaction, and poverty, there is no real need for emotion or critical thought. No one really feels or thinks about anything for too long. "Mindlessness and moral idiocy are not characteristically human attributes. They are symptoms of herd-poisoning," Huxley opines optimistically in his essays. And his herd is completely poisoned. Well, except for a few odd cows.

Like most dystopian stories, Brave New World tests its dystopia when outsider characters question the social order. One of them, Bernard Marx, a slight misfit in the Alpha class, falls through a chink in the design of uniform happiness. Another, John ("the savage") emerges from a culture entirely outside of "civilization." John derives his entire personal philosophy from a mixture of:

1. Native-American beliefs (where relationships involve painful sacrifices and rituals) and
2. An encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare

Once Shakespeare and love are involved, a life of tranquility is out of the question. Both Bernard and John venture into sacrilege by pursuing an offensive kind of monogamous love and by questioning . . . well, by questioning anything at all.

Huxley attacks totalitarianism from a different angle than I expected. Rather than unmasking blackhearted, power-hungry puppeteers behind the government as Orwell does, he presents a utilitarian dilemma: the choice of individualism over happiness. In the Brave New World, stability and contentment are purchased at the cost of individualism, emotion, and critical thought. The flaw in any plan that involves making everyone happy is that people want different kinds of happiness. Huxley won't prescribe the correct form of happiness . . . his point seems to be that such a prescription is impossible.

I'll close with a few favorite quotes to illustrate:

"In a properly-organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble and heroic."
"Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand."

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger., I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin."
"In fact, [ . . . ] you're claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent, the right to have syphilis and cancer, the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind."

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in it!
Chapters 8 & 15 Shakespeare's The Tempest (V, i)

"Life is pain. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something."
-Westley, from The Princess Bride by William Goldman, shortly before being pushed into a ravine


A good philosophical read always gives me a few paper topics. If you need one, take it. Just send me a copy of the paper when you're done.

Halfway through the book, I shake myself and realize that Huxley's story has convinced me that there is something daring and revolutionary about romantic, monogamous love. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land also presents a radical form of love. On what aspects of love do Heinlein and Huxley agree and disagree?

John derives a zest for romantic, monogamous love as a result of memorizing Shakespeare. Write a paper examining the Shakespeare that John quotes, evaluating John's conclusions about love and his reading of Shakespeare.

Huxley's characters have most of their basic needs met "moderately," in ways that they perceive to be healthy, ways that free them from desire, as their desires are almost immediately slaked in a peaceful manner. There is no war, no conflict. Might Huxley also be criticizing a Buddhist philosophy (or at least Buddhism as it might manifest if prescribed superficially by a totalitarian government)?

Huxley's narrator makes use of free indirect discourse, an ironic mode of narration established by Jane Austin and often used to highlight cultural absurdities. The ironic narration provides a degree of levity, makes the dystopia darklly humorous instead of just dark. In the end, though, readers must move beyond the irony or it can become its own form of Soma, a safe way to create distance from the dirty business of thinking of alternatives to what's being satirized. Toward the end of the story, can the reader maintain that safe distance? Why or why not?

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